Formula of Five: Time Management

June 23, 2015

by Peter Amsterdam

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“Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.”1

As has been said, time is one thing that you can never get back again. That’s why the Bible talks about “redeeming the time” or “making the best use of the time.”2 We don’t know how much time we each have on this earth, so it behooves us to spend our time wisely. That calls for some commitment to developing our time management skills, because there are countless interruptions, genuine needs, and distractions coming at us every day.

We have long to-do lists, more to do than we can ever possibly get done. Yet it’s so easy to fritter time away. It’s all too common to be caught up in the whirlwind of busyness, yet come to the end of the day realizing we didn’t get done what we had intended to do. The temptation is great to procrastinate on our most difficult but truly important work. In short, it’s a tremendous challenge to consistently use our time wisely, and to get the most important things done, and to find the time to balance the multitude of responsibilities and tasks—work and personal—that we are faced with each day.

There are a lot of time management buzzwords, and I want to mention two of them: efficiency and effectiveness. There is a big difference between being efficient and being effective. As Jeff Haden explains:

Efficient people are well organized and competent. They check things off their to-do list. They complete projects. They get stuff done.

Effective people do all that, but they check the right things off their to-do list. They complete the right projects. They get the right stuff done.3

This is an overarching point to consider in the five foundational points of time management that we’ll cover in a minute. While it’s great to become more efficient, if we’re missing the effectiveness component, then we’re likely not reaching our goals or getting done the most important things. So in all of this, we need to look at becoming effective in all that we do, including how we make decisions, set priorities, and implement wise time management practices.

With that introduction, let’s look at five key points in the realm of time management.

Number 1. Accept that you can’t do everything; prioritize.

Many time management books try to teach how to organize your tasks and schedule your time so that you can get everything on your list done. That’s an unrealistic approach. If you try to do it all, you run the risk of wearing out and burning out, and that’s certainly counterproductive!

Jeff Haden put it well when he said: “We can’t do everything, but we can all do a few things really well. Decide what is most important to you, decide to focus on those things … and decide to let go of the things you may want to do but realistically cannot, at least for now.”4

The first order of business is to accept that you won’t be able to do everything. That means you’ll have to let some things go, say no to a number of requests, turn down some projects, and pare down your to-do list. In order to get the most important things done, you will have to set priorities and give the lion’s share of your attention and time to those.

You’ve probably heard of the Pareto Principle, which is also called the 80/20 principle, which is a cornerstone of time management. “If you look at your to-do list and see everything as equally important, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with your volume of tasks, rather than the quality of your work. But consider this: The Pareto Principle suggests that 20% of your tasks produce 80% of your results—and that means that a small fraction of your daily work deserves the majority of your attention.”5

Not everything is equally important. Not everything that comes to you should receive your attention. If 20% of what you do yields 80% of your results, this should be a key filter through which to view the importance of your tasks.

Number 2. Be clear about what to do, and what not to do.

If you want to get the right things done, the first step is to take a good hard look at what you current spend your time on, and what you should be spending your time on. This means looking at your overall life plan, being clear about your main goals and what you are aiming for. You may need to give a fair bit of time and thought to this initially, as this will serve as the base plan that you work from when creating your daily, weekly, and monthly goals and plans.

Generally speaking, you want to identify what your major goals are for the year, what you would call your categories of focus. You will probably identify a few work-related categories and a few categories that relate to your personal life. Don’t pick too many areas of focus; if you do, you probably won’t be able to keep up with all of them. As you allocate your time on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, it’s helpful to place the majority of what you do into one of those categories of focus. This will help you to align what you do on a day-to-day basis with your overall work goals and life goals.

For example, let’s say you run your own business and need to attract more clients. In looking at what you spend your time on each day, you would want to block off some time during each workday toward getting new clients. Maybe one day it would be attending a community business meeting, and another day it would be making a few calls to companies that you’ve been referred to. If you really want new clients, you should be putting in time every day to achieve that goal. Perhaps one of your personal goals is to work through a nine-month study course. You would apply that same principle to this study goal. For example, you might want to set a time to work through your course each evening after the kids are in bed. And so on with your other main goals.

When you draft a plan on paper or computer, of what you are going to do and when you’re going to do it, noting specific dates and times, research shows that your success rate skyrockets. And this planning is best done the day before. Productivity expert Brian Tracy says that “drawing up your list the night before [or at the end of your workday] prompts your subconscious to work on your plans and goals while you sleep. When you wake up, you feel ready to tackle your challenges.”6

As Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” And another wise man said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”7

Just as important as knowing what you should work on is knowing what you should not work on. Some people call this an “ignore” list. It helps to identify and write out what types of tasks come your way that you shouldn’t be doing, even if you like doing them. Our time is limited, so we need to be judicious with our time.

Number 3. Identify and reduce time-wasters and distractions.

If you want to be a masterful manager of your time, you need to know what trips you up. There are many interruptions that come at us each day, not to mention the countless time-wasters and distractions that technology has made available to us. How do you tend to fritter time away? Is it Facebook? TV? YouTube? Keeping up with social media at all hours? Computer games? Maybe cooking shows? Tracking sports events and scores? Randomly surfing the Internet? Checking out celebrity news? And the list just goes on and on.

What all of the above have in common is the uncanny ability to steal away hours of your precious time. Many experts suggest that you log the amount of time you spend on such activities in a week, so that you are aware of where your time goes. These types of activities can take a lot of time and can be addictive, so if you want to improve your time management skills, you’d be wise to assess how much time you spend on them. Then make a plan to reduce or limit your usage; even consider turning off your devices during certain times so you can harness the power of your full focus.

It’s not that these activities or technologies are bad or wrong; many have useful purposes, or might be something that you enjoy when you relax. And you need time to chill as well, but you should decide how much of your life you want to grant to these activities. That’s responsible time management. If you are serious about reaching a goal, these things will generally have to be scaled way back or possibly eliminated entirely. Be aware of the time you give to such activities, realizing that it takes away from the focused time you could be putting toward your life goals.

Number 4. Find a way to capture and organize your tasks.

You need to find an organizational system that works for you. The key phrase here is “works for you.” There are a lot of fancy management systems out there that are designed to manage your overflowing email, keep your every task updated and color coordinated, and display your project list in every conceivable format. That’s great, if it works for you. Unfortunately, people can end up spending a great deal of time managing and tweaking their organizational systems, which takes time away from their priority work.

The same holds true for to-do lists. If your to-do list is pages long and you add to it daily, then you will probably not find it hard to believe this stat: 23% of people spend more time organizing their to-do lists than they spend working on their tasks! The takeaway here is: Look at what’s available, but keep your system as simple as possible, and most of all, go with what works for you. Don’t feel bound by what others are doing, or by what is trendy or popular. Keep trying till you find something that really fits you well.

Whatever system you adopt or set up should enable you to capture your tasks, and ensure that balls aren’t being dropped. That means that as things come up that you need to do, remember, or take care of down the line, that you have a fail-safe way to record that information. You could have a notebook you carry around with you all the time, and jot points down as they come up. Or you might jot a memo on your phone and it syncs with your computer, so that you can see everything that you have to do at a glance. Usually you’ll need some further layers of organization to categorize your tasks and so on, but the single most important point is to write things down, or to note them somehow so that you don’t forget later. Once you have a list, then you can determine your priorities based on your major goals, as I mentioned earlier.

As you take care of items, cross them off the list. Keep the list current; it will help you to know where you’re at and what you have on your plate. Purge your list of things that you shouldn’t be doing. Review your list frequently so that items aren’t overlooked, and go over it each evening when you make your plan for the following day.

One of the most classic rules of productivity is this: Do your most important work first. Tackle the top item on your list—which can often be the hardest thing—when you have the most energy and the freshest mind.8 You’ll not only get more done, but you’ll feel great having your priority work behind you, which will energize you to tackle the rest of your tasks.

Number 5. Don’t overextend yourself; be realistic.

This is a difficult one for many of us, because we want to help our co-workers or friends with their requests. We want to be helpful, and there are needs on every side. It’s hard to say no. But the reality is that we only have 24 hours a day, and as hard as we try, we can’t clear off our lists by nightfall.

God has given us a finite amount of time each day, and no matter how much you want to accomplish or how sincerely you want to help others, you can only realistically accomplish so much. Be careful to not overextend yourself and overcommit. That adds tremendous stress and causes you to fail to deliver, and leads to being overwhelmed. Studies show that people who are realistic about the challenge, scope, and length of a project are the ones who persist.9

Make a concerted effort to be realistic about the amount of time that a project will take, whether you can take on another task, and whether you can deliver by the deadline. Be aware of what you already have on your plate, which a well-kept to-do list should provide. And ultimately you have to be willing to say no when necessary. It’s going to be difficult, but in the long run saying no to tasks that would overload you will protect your ability to do important quality work, to remain focused, and to be fresh enough to contribute to discussions, creative problem-solving, etc.

Here are a few additional tips to help you maximize your productivity, so that you can get more done in less time.

  • Find your productive time, what some call the “power hour,” when you do your best work. Do your most important work then.
  • Budget your time as carefully as you budget your finances.
  • Don’t multitask. It’s more effective to focus on one thing at a time, complete it, then move on to your next task.
  • Try to minimize interruptions. Studies show that it takes an average of 23 minutes for a person to get back into the groove of their work after some interruption.
  • Batch similar tasks together. For example: make all your phone calls in one slot of time; go through your email at preset times, not every time a new message comes in.
  • Keep a project with you at all times, so if you find yourself waiting or with a few spare minutes, you can use the time wisely. Minutes over the course of a year really do add up.

I read an excellent article by John Maxwell which captures the balance of managing our minutes, hours, and days in conjunction with the larger picture of our life’s goals and direction. I’ll read you excerpts of it.

Connecting the Clock and the Compass

“Time waits for no man.” You’ve probably heard that saying. And it’s true; time marches on, and it’s up to us to keep up with it. We need to be conscious of the clock, or we’ll never make any progress toward our goals. But I believe there’s more to success than reaching goals. True success comes from significance: doing things that matter ... things that last after we’re gone.

How do we know if what we’re doing really makes a difference? We can’t just look at the clock. We need to be conscious of our compass. … In other words, we need to integrate a daily focus with a long-term sense of direction. This gives us a better perspective.

The Clock: The clock is always ticking in this life. Time passes, and we either take advantage of opportunities, or we miss them. So it’s important to keep the clock in mind. But it’s not the only thing, if you want to live a life of significance.

The Compass: The compass is what we steer life by. It remains constant, and we’re wise when we align ourselves with the direction we know we should be going. But just lining up with the compass doesn’t get us anywhere if we don’t start moving.

The clock equals daily things: what we are doing. The compass equals destiny things: where we are going. The clock deals with appointments and activities. The compass points toward vision, values, and mission. Together the clock and the compass provide us with both motivation and direction. Finding a balance between them means that we’re able to compound our efforts and add the most value that we can to our world.

So the next time you plan your day, week, or year, be conscious of both the clock and the compass, and see how far it takes you.10

So let’s review the five points to time management that we’ve touched on:

  1. Accept that you can’t do everything; prioritize.
  2. Be clear about what to do, and what not to do.
  3. Identify and reduce time-wasters and distractions.
  4. Find a way to capture and organize your tasks.
  5. Don’t overextend yourself; be realistic. 

It’s vital to remember that the purpose of time management isn’t just to get more done. It’s to do the important things well. Good time management will positively affect every aspect of your life. It will allow you to devote time to the most important things, such as your family and the people that you care about, your business, your spiritual life, your service to the community, your health, your key relationships, and so on. It will bring you a sense of fulfillment because you will experience the satisfaction of completion. As a wise time manager, you will naturally end up on the receiving end of many opportunities because people will see that you are reliable, a man or woman of your word, and that you are consistent, and they will want to work with you.

I’ll leave you with this compelling thought: “Time is priceless. You have it, but you don't own it. You spend it, but you can't keep it. And once it's gone, there's no getting it back. Use it wisely!”

1 Psalm 90:12 NLT.

2 Ephesians 5:16 ESV.

3 Jeff Haden, “9 Habits That Turn Efficient People Into Highly Effective People,” Inc., October 6, 2014.

4 Jeff Haden, “Success? It’s Just a Decision Away,” CBS Moneywatch, October 19, 2011.

5 Lea McLeod, “The Job Skill You Need (That Nobody Talks About)”, The Muse, September 7, 2014.

6 Brian Tracy, “How to Squeeze the Most Out of Your Time,” GetMotivation.

7 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

8 Trent Hamm, “Do the Hard Things First,” The Simple Dollar, Sept. 17, 2014.

9 Heidi Grant Halvorson, “Be an Optimist Without Being a Fool,” HBR, May 2, 2011.

10 John C. Maxwell, “Connecting the Clock and the Compass,” Leadership Wired, February 7, 2014.